A League of Roleplayers

Brad Evans using his subtle influence to ensure the talk about Brek Shea continues to focus on his hair. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Perhaps you have heard of the popular, free to play, online game called League of Legends. Perhaps not. Maybe you have played its progenitor Defense of the Ancients; maybe not. Or you might be acquainted with Storm of the Imperial Sanctum, though, if you said no to the above, probably not. Whether you have or haven't, hopefully you will enjoy the interesting parallels we might draw between these Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) games and our beloved sport of soccer.

First, a primer. MOBAs are team-based games where each player controls a "hero" and attempts to destroy the other team's base first. Each team has a set of areas to defend and little computer-controlled minions who will help them in the process of defense and attack. But where these games shine is in the structure of the competition between the teams of player-controlled heroes. The heroes fight each other, neutral monsters, and the enemy's minions and towers while they gain experience to level up and money to purchase upgrades. They are incredibly diverse, though at the same time there are a few basic roles and types they follow. There are mages, hand-to-hand fighters, stealthy assassins, damage absorbers, and ranged damage dealers. More importantly, they each fill vital roles.

The three main roles in any MOBA are "support," "tank," and "carry." Supports do what their name suggests: they use their tools and skills to empower their team or hinder their enemy while avoiding being the focus of a battle (or attempting to, at least). They might do this by harassing the enemy, shielding an ally, or providing the team with a tactical advantage (see Lulu). A tank is what you might imagine it would be: a big target that is meant to soak up damage and, to a lesser extent, deal it out in kind. A good tank can take a lot of damage and can resist some damage, but can also cause the other team enough havoc that they must be dealt with (see Volibear). A carry is the person who "carries" your team to victory later in the game. When properly used, a carry can decimate the other team at will, meaning each team will protect their own or kill the other carry at all costs (seeAshe). There are, of course, many subtleties to each game, with plenty of ways to build your hero as a hybrid or to end up having your tank win it all alone, but these roles define the game at a basic level.

These roles also roughly translate onto the soccer pitch.

Conor Casey is a tank. As the Sounders know all too well, Casey can be deadly with the ball, but spends most of the game mixing it up with the centerbacks, using his sheer power to wear them down. He's not generally one to win it on his own, though he is always doing work and gets rewarded for it later. He is what we wanted Blaise Nkufo to be and what Brian Ching used to be, two other players who fit the tank mold. There are tanks at the other end of the pitch too.George John and Jamison Olave come to mind as two of the most physical centerbacks in MLS. They won't stop you with speed, but with mass. They are speedy and tactically aware enough so that you cannot get away from them though, so you must figure out how to deal with them. These are the defensive tanks, and they play their role well.

Brad Evans is the epitome of a support. His influence on the field is often hard to discern, but look hard enough and it is there and it is large. He's not one to score a ton of goals, though he can convert a PK when called upon. He's not one to rack up a lot of assists, though his runs often make it possible for others to do so. He's not one to make the majority of tackles, though his pressure often funnels the opposition directly to the hungry feet of Alonso. He wins the midfield duels, he makes the tactical fouls, he links the right to the left. He shields the defense and feeds the offense. He cannot win it alone, but he elevates the game of those around him to give his team the best chance of winning. Other great supports include Nick LaBrocca, Brad Davis, Juninho and Graham Zusi. They cannot be ignored, but likely are not the focus.

There is no clearer carry this year than Thierry Henry. His 9 goals and 5 assists in only 8 games helped New York to a much better than expected start to the year, even while an inexperienced defense struggled to support him. Give Henry the space and time, and often a goal will result. He's not only tied for second in goals scored (2 back from Wondo with 3 less games played), but he's also been generous with the assists, tied for third in the league in that category. And he's tied for second in goals with Kenny Cooper, the primary beneficiary of Henry's assists and overall body of work. When Henry is at the top of his game, he's the type of player that makes defenders want to crawl under a rock and hide until he goes away. Cooper is also playing the tank superbly, allowing New York to confidently shipJuan Agudelo off to Chivas, even though New York is fairly thin at forward. Other MLS carries: Fredy Montero, Dwayne De Rosario, and Chris Wondolowski. Give those players room to operate and a bit of support and they will bury you. There are also some players who can completely dominate a game without scoring themselves, though they do sometimes, like Shalrie Joseph, Osvaldo Alonso, or Kyle Beckerman.

All in all, soccer is a game in which each player must play a role. You can't have everyone scoring goals, though sometimes Jeff Parke provides the winner in stoppage or Mike Magee gives you some quality minutes in goal. Strange things do happen, but they are strange for a reason. Defenders (mostly) play defense, forwards attack, and the midfield provides support for both. League of Legends is not so different--if each player sticks to his role then the team can truly showcase its skill set. Sometimes roles can get mixed, or perhaps a player takes on a special role (i.e.,Zach Scott: Man Marker), but those roles are important.

This is not new, but I do find it interesting seeing the same concepts recycled in far-flung areas of society. Though perhaps they are not so far-flung. At the base of it, aren't all team-based games similar in a fundamental way? The interesting part is seeing how those basic concepts are expressed in different ways and trying to figure out how analysis of one can influence the other.

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